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This story first run on May 9, 2008
WASHINGTON - The U.S. attorney for Utah said he will review a congressional request for a criminal investigation into whether the Crandall Canyon mine general manager "willfully misled" federal officials.
A spokeswoman for Brett Tolman, the state's top federal law enforcement official, said he takes the request "very seriously" and will review the materials submitted by House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller.
"As with other referrals that come to our office, we will carefully screen the material provided to us, work with agents to conduct further investigation as needed, and consider whether criminal charges are appropriate based on evidence in the case," Melodie Rydalch said in a statement.
On Thursday, Miller revealed that he has asked the Justice Department to review whether charges are warranted against Laine Adair, who oversaw Crandall Canyon as general manager of Utah-American Energy Inc., the Utah subsidiary of Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp., which bought interests in five Utah mines in 2006. Six miners were trapped - and ultimately entombed - in the Crandall Canyon mine when its walls imploded on Aug. 6. Three would-be rescuers were killed and six others injured 10 days later in a second cave-in.
In his letter, dated April 28, Miller said prosecutors should probe whether Adair "individually or in conspiracy with others, willfully concealed or covered up" or made "false representations" to federal officials about the conditions in the mine, a violation of federal law.
Adair's attorney, Gregory L. Poe, said in a statement that Adair finds the call for a criminal investigation "deeply disappointing and utterly unjustified.
"Mr. Adair has earned an impeccable reputation through decades of service in the Utah mining industry," Poe said. "We are confident that the Justice Department will agree that a prosecution is wholly unwarranted."
Adair, along with mine co-owner Bob Murray and three other officials with Murray Energy's Utah subsidiaries, declined to be deposed by committee investigators, asserting their constitutional right against self-incrimination, the report said.
The president and a former principal of Agapito Associates Inc., the engineering firm that advised Murray Energy on the mine plan, also were subpoenaed to testify but invoked their Fifth Amendment right as well, according to the report.
Miller's memorandum to fellow committee members, issued at a Washington news conference, said mine officials did not properly notify federal authorities about a March collapse, called a bump, and that Adair may have "significantly downplayed" the extent of the damage. The March bump occurred about 900 feet from where the August collapse trapped the miners about 1,900 feet deep in the Emery County mountain.
"Adair and others at Genwal may have purposefully misled MSHA about the severity of the March bump fearing MSHA would close the mine, and [they] continued to adhere to the mischaracterization after the August incidents in an effort to downplay the foreseeability of the August incident," Miller's report said.
Kevin Anderson, legal counsel for Genwal Resources, the Murray Energy subsidiary that operated Crandall Canyon, blasted Miller for "his zeal to create a political sensation before the completion of the official investigation" by MSHA.
"Genwal Resources stands behind Mr. Adair," he added.
An independent engineering consultant hired by the House committee chairman said the mining plan submitted by UtahAmerican Energy would have been successful if the roof-supporting pillars in the area were in pristine condition. However, the analysis showed it was "unlikely" the pillars were strong enough to hold up the roof, and notes from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management indicated deterioration in the pillars as far back as 2004.
"The conclusion I have come to, therefore, is that UtahAmerican Energy should never have submitted its retreat mining plan for the South Barrier in the first place," Miller told reporters. "More importantly, [MSHA] should never have approved the plan."
Ed Havas, a Salt Lake City attorney representing the families of the six trapped miners and most of the killed or injured rescuers, said Miller's findings echo what Havas alleged in an April lawsuit against Murray Energy.
"There were lots and lots of red flags and signals what was going on should not have been happening in August," Havas said. "It compounds the tragedy to see how foreseeable and how completely avoidable it was to have this happen."
Investigators for the House Education and Labor Committee said they reviewed 400,000 pages of documents, some obtained under subpoena. While the report does take MSHA to task for approving the plan, it largely avoids blaming the agency for the tragedy.
Committee investigator Patrick Findley said the report by the engineering consultant hired by the panel, Norwest Corp. of Salt Lake City, was "highly critical of MSHA."
MSHA spokesman Matthew Faraci said the agency's own accident investigation team will determine the disaster's root causes. "Until this report is released, it would be premature and speculative to comment on Congressman Miller's review," Faraci said.
MSHA said its accident investigation team is still a few months away from reporting its findings.
Adair has played a minor role in the public story of the mine tragedy, while Bob Murray, who initially held news conferences after the disaster, was the public face of the mine operation. But Miller said his request for a criminal probe of Adair was based on Adair being the primary contact between the mine and MSHA officials.
Miller quickly added that his letter to the Justice Department included the question of whether there was a "conspiracy" between Adair and others to mislead MSHA.
"How much higher up it may have gone, we don't know," Findley said.
Issued as a memorandum, Thursday's report and the probe did not have the support of all committee members.
The panel's ranking Republican, Rep. Howard P. McKeon, of California, said Miller's report offers "little in the way of new information" to the families of Crandall Canyon victims, and that while Congress has an oversight duty, it should ensure its probes don't hamper those by "proper authorities."
Fingers pointed at MSHA
The Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General reported March 31 that MSHA was "negligent" in protecting underground coal miners at Crandall Canyon and mines nationwide, violating agency protocols in approving Crandall Canyon's roof control plan and not being able to show that it was not subject to "undue influence" from the mine owner.
Earlier call for investigation
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee also recommended a criminal investigation into the Crandall Canyon mine disaster. It alleged on March 6 that Murray Energy Corp. was conducting unauthorized mining and ignored warnings about the dangers of retreat mining, and that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration was bullied into approving the mining plan and lax in enforcing safety laws.